Midlifers live their dreams by changing careers

At 47, attorney Frank Miele left a lucrative partnership at a law firm to open his own art gallery in New York City, a decision he says took him about "2½ seconds" to make and one he doesn't regret even in these tough economic times.

Joe Sabia of Boca Raton, Fla., was 46 when he quit his job selling medical products to become a physical education teacher and coach, which he calls "the best job in the world."

Bartan Kennedy, an assistant kindergarten teacher in Stamford, Conn., was 50 when she realized she still wanted to fulfill her lifelong desire to be a performer. So she took a job doing dramatic storytelling at three local libraries and now entertains 200 children every week.

"My audience is young and enthusiastic and forgiving, and I am finally a star," she says.

With the economy on the skids and retirement benefits being cut, many people realize they will need to continue working much longer than they ever expected, and they're rethinking how they want to spend those years.

Is there still time to switch, take a risk and pursue an old dream, a secret passion, something meaningful? USA TODAY asked to hear from readers who did just that, and dozens responded with details about how they changed course.

"People are realizing that they might be working for a long time, so they might as well find something that they like," says life coach Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction.

At least 5.3 million people ages 44 to 70 in the USA have encore careers, ones that combine income, personal meaning and social impact, and many more would like to pursue such jobs, according to the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a national think tank.

But figuring out what to do can be a daunting task, experts say, and many people are frozen in indecision and fear. Too often people dismiss their passions and dreams as improbable because they might need more training or because they feel as if they'll be throwing away years they invested in graduate school or their current careers, Fortgang says.

Many clients tell her they have no idea how to begin to uncover another passion or dream within themselves. They say to her: "I don't know what else I would do." She looks at them and says, "I bet you do, but you don't want to admit it." Fortgang has clients write their life stories so they can uncover forgotten interests.

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia and former president of the American Psychological Association, says figuring out something that will sustain your commitment, passion and drive for years to come takes careful thought. "I have a simple formula for success in life," he says. "Success equals self-knowledge plus motivation."

When it comes to your self-knowledge, Farley advises taking a hard look at your current job. What do you like about it, and what don't you like? Ask yourself if you have a passion such as art, landscaping or writing that you will regret not pursuing. "You don't want to look back and think, 'I wish I'd done that.'

"After you come up with some passions or interests that might evolve into a new career, then it's important to do a dispassionate analysis of them: Is this enough for me? Can I make enough to support myself and my spouse?"

Miele, 69, loved painting during his younger years, but after he became an attorney in 1964, he had little time for it. But he went to art museums and galleries and started collecting American folk art. He got to know prominent collectors, dealers, auction personnel and members of the media, he says. "Unwittingly, I was laying the foundation for a midlife career change," he says.

As a lawyer, Miele represented big corporations in trials, but after more than 20 years in the profession, he felt he needed a new challenge. "In terms of my career, there weren't a whole lot of mountains left to climb. I had attained a lot of them at an early age, and there wasn't enough to sustain the enthusiasm for an extended period of time."

So in 1986, when an established art gallery owner asked him to partner with him on a new gallery, Miele quickly agreed. Several years later, Miele opened his own American folk art gallery on Madison Avenue.

Now, he works six days a week at the gallery, and although he doesn't make as much money now, he loves what he does.

Today's economy has been tough for his business, but there are ups and downs in the practice of law too, he says. "I would have reached mandatory retirement age (in the law practice) and been put out to pasture."

But he has no plans to retire. "I'm not going to wait around to die. When God comes down and tells me my time is up, I'll probably argue with him."

Cancer caused her to reassess

Bartan Kennedy of Stamford, Conn., 65, also has no plans to retire. She was a teen model and had dance training for 15 years, performing at Madison Square Garden and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. She graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Theatre Academy in New York, where she took classes with Eva Gabor and puppeteer Shari Lewis.

Kennedy says she tried to get her "big break" but had to face the grim reality that she "wasn't talented enough to make it in such a competitive business."

Instead, she married her high school sweetheart, Bob Kennedy, raised four children, produced some school plays and became an assistant kindergarten teacher, which she calls a "wonderful rewarding career, which I continue to have after 26 years."

But after a bout with breast cancer at 50, Kennedy decided she still wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a performer. She heard about an opportunity to tell stories to children at three local libraries. "A lot of times when you have a life-changing experience, you re-evaluate your life. I was happy in all areas of my life, but I thought this sounded like lots of fun, and at that time, I needed some fun."

So she began reading and telling stories, singing and dancing. She used her skills as a performer to enhance the children's experience. She does this four or five time a week. "My not-so-good singing is perfectly adequate for 3-year-olds," she says. "I am living my dream. At a time when many are thinking of retiring, I am just getting started. Broadway, here I come!"

Some people draw inspiration from their hobbies. Take Pat Riley of Janesville, Wis. She worked at a local hospital for 18 years as a data analyst and unit clerk, but at 44, she was tired of the daily grind. Her stress reliever and passion was quilting, so she decided to open a quilt shop.

Now, Riley, 49, works in her own shop seven days a week. She doesn't make as much money as she used to, but it's enough to supplement her husband's income. And she's happy with her life now. "Everybody who comes in here has a smile on their face. It's not nearly as stressful as my other job. It's not someone's life that you have to worry about."

Others made lateral moves to add a new dimension to their lives. Bonnie Sohn, 55, whose father had Alzheimer's disease, was an accountant for the same organization in Chicago for 17 years and was pretty content.

But she decided she wanted to do something that made a difference in other people's lives, so when she heard about an accounting position with the Alzheimer's Association, she grabbed it. She is earning the same amount of money and doing similar tasks. "I spend a lot of time on my job, and I wanted to do something that was doing good for other people."

'Audition' your new career

Still, not everyone's dreams pan out, so people must proceed cautiously, especially if they need to support themselves financially, Farley says.

Some may think they are going to be full-time artists selling their work through eBay, and then they discover there are hundreds of artists out there, he says. "You have to engineer your passion into some form of reality or you'll wish you were back in your old job with a reliable paycheck."

If you do decide to try a new career, consider "auditioning" for it, Farley says. Get a part-time job in that field or volunteer or take some college classes to see if this is an area you'd enjoy.

Sabia, 56, of Boca Raton, tried out his new profession. He graduated in 1975 with a degree to teach physical education but couldn't find a job, so he went into sales instead.

In 1998, the company Sabia was working for was bought out, and Sabia didn't feel his job was secure. He was divorced and his children were almost grown, so he quit his job and started substitute teaching. "I was taking a chance," he says.

He loved teaching and got a permanent position as a health and physical education teacher. "This August I started my 10th year at the same high school. It has been a terrific ride," Sabia says.